June 25, 2019

This article originally appeared in Try This! — Tools for Journalism, our newsletter about digital tools. Want bite-sized news, tutorials and ideas about the best digital tools for journalism in your inbox every Monday? Sign up here.

That old narrative that says we all got into this profession because we’re word people and not numbers people is under strain.

Recognizing the importance of math and data in so many major beats — education, the stock market, the census and criminal justice — The New York Times’s digital transition team set out to train reporters on basic data skills and understanding of numbers. After two pilot programs, the Times launched a data boot camp available to all of its reporters on any beat. The class meets for two hours every morning for three weeks.

Three times more journalists sign up than the class can fit. So yeah, it’s safe to say that (at the Times, at least) our reluctance to move from the keyboard to the calculator is dead.

Stories that have come out of the program are varied — from a friendly fire incident in Vietnam a half century ago to a storefront sign-reporting bandit in Brooklyn, from the effect of hospital mergers on prices to racial disparities at New York’s most elite public high school.

The training is built around Google Sheets, starting with basics on navigating and searching through spreadsheets, all the way up to cleaning and parsing data. Besides hard skills, the class also focuses on how best to use data in stories, ethics and bulletproofing data-driven stories.

The best part? The Times published all of these resources and tools so that other newsrooms and journalism schools can build a foundation in data reporting, too. Now you’ll be ready the next time some Twitter troll tells you to “learn to code.”

A DATE WITH THE DEVIL: Earlier this year, I surmised that calendars might become the next great publishing tool. Led by organizations like the Times and the Star Tribune in Minneapolis, and pushed forward by innovative startups like Frame, newsrooms are eyeing the mostly unclaimed and very personal space on audiences’ phones and computers. So are scammers, evidently. Phishers are taking advantage of a default Google setting that automatically adds events to calendars, reports Lily Hay Newman for Wired. Victims are then barraged with notifications that promise cash rewards or money transfers with links to forms that steal their information. Please mark me down as “not attending.”

GET SOCIAL: NBC News shared a story about a man who ate hot sauce packets while he was stuck in his car, with anchors pretending to drink hot sauce as they spoke. The Washington Post imitated a Spongebob meme soundtracked with Billie Eilish. When you’re on the hottest social media platform for those under 30, you have to adapt a little. Tik Tok now boasts half a billion active users and a handful of news organizations trying to make the most of its youthful audience. The aim for most of them is brand recognition. Even if your organization isn’t ready to yeet the most fire memes, it’s worth signing in and snagging your username before someone else does.

TRACK CHANGES: There are plenty of reasons why a journalist would want to monitor and track changes on a web page — hush-hush changes on executive teams, sneaky spikes in prices of goods or commodities, a subtle tweak in administrative policy. There are a handful of tool options in this realm. I’ve been using The Marshall Project’s Klaxon to track changes on a handful of websites across the internet for a few years now. But as much as I like Klaxon, my attempts to sign up friends and colleagues have not gone well because, well, look at these instructions. Lately, I’ve been trying an alternative called Distill.io. As a simple browser plugin, it’s relatively foolproof (feel free to prove me a fool), with plenty of options and a generous free plan.

BAD EMAIL, GOOD EMAIL: Has your inbox seemed a little stale lately? A few years back, Google introduced Smart Reply, which suggests clickable replies to emails; and Smart Compose, which suggests ending for sentences and all email is worse off for it, writes Emily Reynolds for OneZero. She argues that the automatic responses are generic and interchangeable, implying that your concern for the email’s recipient is also interchangeable and irrelevant. It’s an interesting point. Perhaps a better way to shave off a few seconds from your inbox is Checker Plus, a browser plugin that collapses all of your Gmail accounts into a handy panel. It includes just about every bell and whistle you can think of — hardly impersonal!

HOW TO FREELANCE: Whether you’re looking to launch a lucrative side hustle or forge your own path, here are four resources about freelancing that should help.

INFINITE TOOLS AND INFINITE TOOLBOXES: Every now and then I share what seems to me to be an unreasonable number of tools. “I’m being overwhelming,” I think. “There is no way anyone will find the energy to look through all of those.” But, invariably, at least one of you reaches out and asks for more. So here’s the motherlode. The Toolbox Toolbox is exactly what it sounds like — a collection of toolboxes from every kind of organization you can imagine containing all types of tools and tips and guidebooks. It’s incredibly overwhelming but I suspect some of you will spend hours roving its tomes.


  • I realize I keep dispensing work from The Pudding, but show me a more innovative way to share the most popular music from the last couple decades.
  • Slack has gone public. Its Nasdaq symbol is “WORK.” And its market cap is currently more than $18 billion which, as Nieman Lab points out in this ode to Slack’s role in our lives, more than three times the value of The New York Times.
  • Nieman also has a great look at the impending closure of what might have been the most innovative news app out there — Quartz. The mobile news chat app, which was great for news junkies and the severely lonely alike, will shut down next week.

Try This! is supported by the American Press Institute and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

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Ren LaForme is the Managing Editor of Poynter.org. He was previously Poynter's digital tools reporter, chronicling tools and technology for journalists, and a producer for…
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